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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Shen's Books: A World of Stories

I'm a niche blogger. I know that and I still sleep at night. I will not be in anyone's top ten list unless, of course, the list is titled "Best Blogs for Helping Upper Elementary and Middle School Teachers Use Picture Books in Their Instruction."

But even then, I'm not a sure thing.

But being a niche guy, I love to explore books from niche children's publishers. Like my blog, they choose to focus their efforts on a single purpose. I've blogged about Lee and Low in the past, and that publishing house absolutely fits this description. But now let me introduce you to Shen's Books.

In their own words,
Shen’s Books is a publisher of multicultural children’s literature that emphasizes cultural diversity and tolerance, with a focus on introducing children to the cultures of Asia. Our incredibly talented authors and illustrators have created books for elementary grade children that reflect the highest standards of art and literature.
Through books, we can share a world of stories, building greater understanding and tolerance within our increasingly diverse communities as well as throughout our continuously shrinking globe.
I checked out their web site and many of their books, and they absolutely deliver on these promises. But while providing a much needed emphasis on multicultural storytelling, they in no way skimped on storytelling and illustration, the very heart and soul of picture books.

In Grandfather's Story Cloth, for example, young Chersheng is upset by his grandfather's memory loss due to Alzheimer's disease. His memories seem to return when Grandfather studies the images on the story cloth he created while in a refugee camp following the Vietnam War. Even then, Chersheng wonders why the memories end there. Why didn't grandfather create another story cloth to illustrate his immigration to America and the new life he made? Chersheng discovers a way to make that happen.

For me, this book generated many possible connections for classroom study:
  • Like Mem Fox's Wilfrid Gordon MacDonald Partridge, this books holds many possibilities for discussions of memory, as well as our relationships with older generations. Like that book, Grandfather's Story Cloth doesn't offer solutions but understanding. See the guiding questions at a previous post for Wilfrid Gordon; many can be adapted for use with Grandfather's Story Cloth.
  • Many grade level curriculums include units on immigration, and this book provides a glimpse of a cultural group that is often forgotten when discussing this topic. The Hmong people who helped the United States during the Vietnam War sacrificed their loved ones and their homeland, and came to America as true refugees. What conflicts were evident in their struggle to acclimate to this new country, while trying to maintain the memories and traditions of the old?
  • Many picture books employ quilts as metaphors for relationships. This book uses a similar symbol, but in a way that isn't contrived. How is Grandfather's Story Cloth similar in theme to Valerie Flournoy's The Patchwork Quilt? What do both books tell us about our relationships with our family members?
  • Teachers may wish for students to explore other ways in which cultures have recorded their stories: How is this story cloth similar to ancient petroglyphs found the world over? How is it similar to Sioux picture writing, to Egyptian hieroglyphics, to the Bayeux Tapestry? Do we as a culture still share messages in a similar way?
Chinese History Stories: Stories from the Zhou Dynasty is a collection of fantastic stories about "foolish kings, clever scholars, brave generals, and kind-hearted princesses." The best part? They're all true!

Students will recognize universal themes of bravery, sacrifice, and loyalty while at the same time learning "just enough" about Chinese history and culture to allow these stories to transcend simple anecdotes. I love that each story is illustrated by a different artist; this definitely adds to each tale's unique personality. Stories from the Zhou Dynasty is the first book of a two volume set (the second volume tells tales of China's Imperial Period, from 221 BC to 1911 AD).

How could teachers use this book in the classroom?
  • I would absolutely use this book as a theme setter (an introductory book) before launching into a novel study. If I were about to teach a novel on the theme of loyalty, determination, or loss, I could easily find a story in this collection which would enable my students to construct their own understandings and connection to those themes.
  • Each of the nineteen stories can act as a writing model. Following a read aloud of one of these tales, the teacher might ask: How does the author draw a picture of each character so quickly? What devices are used to move the story line? How is what's left out of the story as important as what's included? What are readers left to infer for themselves?
  • Students can draw conclusions about Chinese culture and customs from the stories. What does this story teach us about Chinese culture? Would or could this same story take place in our culture? Have we heard similar themes in tales from other cultures?
For the younger crowd, Cora Cooks Pancit (written by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore and illustrated by Kristi Valiant) is a definite winner. Little Cora is eager for her chance to act as Mama's assistant chef, and when the time comes, it's pancit that they create. What's pancit? What better way to find out than to read the book and then use the simple recipe included in back to create that same Filipino dish in your own classroom.

This book has received very high marks in picture book circles (yeah, that cool crowd in which I so often travel), and would be a great addition to any elementary unit on families, cultures, heritage, foods, relationships, or immigration. I love the big, lush pictures, as well as the many perspectives from which the reader is allow to view the action. (A great book to tie in with some old favorites of mine by Nora Dooley: Everybody Brings Noodles, Everybody Cooks Rice, Everybody Bakes Bread, and Everybody Serves Soup. These terrific titles discuss the similarities of cultural cooking in a fun way).

I recommend you visit the site for yourself (be sure to enter the drawing for free books). You'll find that while this publisher does specialize in certain topics, the variety of the books it offers is quite large. In addition to the historical tales I mentioned above, Shen's also produces more traditional nonfiction titles about Asian culture including D is for Doufu: An Alphabet Book of Chinese Culture (in addition to Romanized versions of the words, Chinese pictograms are frequently included), and Land of Morning Calm: Korean Culture Then and Now.


Playing by the book said...

I've just found your blog via the kidlitosphere list of bloggers and it's definitely the most enjoyable and thought provoking one I've read this morning (and I've looked at about 30 blogs). The 2 books in this post sound great - certainly I shall be on the look out for them. Grandfather's story cloth made me think of The Moon Quilt by Sunny Warner.